In Part I of this two-part series, we took a look at what SAD is, and I told my SAD story (pun intended!). I gave you info about light therapy and how it works to help those who suffer from the winter blues, including me. But today I’ll be revealing how I finally eliminated my SADness once and for all without light therapy, and how you can, too. And without having to sing a note! Now, let’s kick butt on the winter blues.
Please note: As with all my health-related posts, this is in no way intended as a means for self-diagnosis or medical advice. As always, if you suspect you or a loved one may have SAD or any other medical condition, please seek help from an experienced medical professional.
Winter Blues Way Up North
In last week’s post I revealed to you my struggle with the seasonal depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. Truth be told, I had struggled with depression for much of my adult life – something I will write about in the future – but at the time about ten years ago when SAD briefly took over my life, I had not been depressed prior. In fact, I hadn’t had any bouts with depression in quite some time.
I revealed the symptoms of SAD and discussed a few of the studies that have been and the resulting theories as to why people get it in the first place, so if you haven’t yet read Part I, it may be helpful for you to do so and then return here. Don’t worry, I’ll wait!
Let’s begin today with a story. The story – which is true – takes place in the small town of Rjukan, Norway, which lies about three hours west of Oslo. The picturesque little town lies in a deep valley between two soaring mountains. So deep in fact, that the sun never touches the town for six months of the year.
In the early 20th century an entrepreneur by the name of Sam Eyede bought the local waterfall and proceeded to build a hydroelectric power plant, and later factories that produced artificial fertilizer.
By 1916 a small but bustling town built around the technology of the time had been well-established. But the managers of the power plant and factories were concerned that their employees weren’t getting enough sun (imagine that – company managers actually having concern for their employees – and in the early 20th century, no less!).
Then a man named Oscar Kittilsen came up with an idea.
Mr. Kittelsen’s idea was to erect huge rotatable mirrors on the north side of the valley, where they would be able to reflect the sunlight down to the town, giving the shade-dwelling inhabitants a bit of sun each day during the dark winter months. At least when it wasn’t snowing. Or cloudy. About a month later, in November 1913, a story in a newspaper described Sam Eyde as pushing the same idea.
But, lacking the technology needed to make the dream a reality, the Krossobane, Northern Europe’s first cable car system was built instead as a gift from the Norsk Hydro to people of the town of Rjukan. If the sunshine would not come to the people, then the people could go to the sunshine. The Krossobane is still in operation today.
However, in 2002, a young artist named Martin Andersen moved to Rjukan and decided to borrow Oscar Kittilsen’s 100 year old idea. He finally won over the local authorities and about 12 years later, three giant mirrors were installed on the mountain 1,476 feet above the former parking lot turned town square. Park benches were placed in the square so sun-seekers could sit a spell and soak up the rays.
Only, there was a bit of trouble in mirror paradise. Many of the town’s residents opposed the idea from the outset, saying it was a waste of money that could have been better used elsewhere. And after the initial hoopla of the mirrors’ inaugural ball, complete with camera crews from around the world and locals lounging around the square on lawn chairs while sipping cocktails, it seems that only a few people come to the square to seek the sun.
Much of the time, there isn’t enough sun to power the solar-powered mirrors. Even when there is, the sun strikes the town square for only a few minutes. But at least they have tourist dollars, admit the locals who have been less than enthused about the whole project; as most of those who gravitate to the town square to take advantage of a few minutes of sunshine are either tourists or folks who have recently moved to Rjukan. It seems as if most of the locals aren’t too bothered by the lack of sunlight.
Why are We SAD?
But, why the discrepancy? Why are some people prone to the winter blues every year, while others sail merrily through the season, happy as children on Christmas morning?
Some have suggested it’s genetic. Tromso, Norway, is one of the most northerly cities in the world, sitting at 249 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where the sun doesn’t even peek over the horizon between November 21 and January 21.
Yet studies with its inhabitants have shown that there is no difference in rates of depression from summer to winter.
In fact, Stanford researcher Kari Liebowitz spent ten months in Tromso in order to learn how its “poor, unfortunate” inhabitants survive the long winter with its two-month polar night. She was in for a pleasant surprise however, when she learned that the residents don’t just survive the winter, they look forward to it and enjoy it. You can read her article here at US News.
Iceland tells a similar story, where the incidence of SAD is approximately 3.8 percent. That’s lower than many countries lying farther south. Then there’s an oddity in Manitoba – SAD strikes about half as many residents of Icelandic descent as it does the non-Icelandic Canadian residents.
Most of the people who live in the northernmost latitudes, who actually like winter don’t get SAD.
SAD No More — How I Cured My Winter Blues
And the results of a study published in 2015 show that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) worked just as well for SAD sufferers as light therapy did. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is simply changing our way of thinking, which admittedly, while simple to learn is not always easy to consistently do, thanks to our many deeply-ingrained negative thought patterns and our human habit of letting them rule over us.
But if we are willing, then we are able. It takes determination and tenacity, but little by little, we will start to control what goes on in our brains, instead of letting our brains and their toxic thoughts and attitudes run roughshod over us. Toxic thoughts and attitudes I might add, that for the most part, we planted there ourselves.
And this my friends, is how I kicked SAD to the curb.
So, was it that easy – one fine day, I simply decided, I’m not going to have SAD anymore, and just like that, it disappeared?
Well…yes and no. Let me explain.
Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while may remember I wrote a couple of posts about how I’d used a certain “CBT technique” – which really, is so much more than that – to help with my healing from RAD, get over my fear and hatred of math (to the point of falling in love with quantum physics), cure myself of debilitating phobias of spiders, narrow, curvy mountain roads, and other stuff, and more.
Please note: I am not affiliated with Dr. Leaf in any way. I mention her program and include links only because I have read several of her books used the online program myself and found it to work amazingly well. Her work has been life-changing for me.
The program I used is called the 21-Day Brain Detox by Dr. Caroline Leaf, a cognitive neuroscientist. Years ago, scientists and medical professionals believed that if a person had a brain injury or faulty wiring, the patient would just have to learn to live with it, and find ways to work around it. But in the 1980’s, Dr. Leaf began to challenge that notion, as her studies into the mind-brain connection showed that the human brain is neuroplastic.
Neuro-what?! No worries! “Neuro” simply means “brain” as you’ve probably already guessed, and in this case, “plastic” simply means the ability to be altered, shaped, changed. In my posts about RAD in children (starting with this one), I detail how a baby’s life in utero, such as her mother’s anxiety, attitudes, (read: thoughts) and all-around mental health, plus what goes on outside the womb that baby hears, is being wired into baby’s developing brain, for good or for ill.
If the conditions were bad and baby is then given up for adoption, the horrible trauma of being separated from her mother adds more faulty wiring, setting the stage for reactive attachment disorder (even if the baby goes directly into the arms of a loving adoptive mom). Which is not to say that all adopted children have RAD – but I did, and many others do.
But even kids without RAD can, and do receive faulty wiring in utero, and during childhood.
But back to neuroplasticity. During Dr. Leaf’s years of research, clinical practice and work with underprivileged teachers and students in South Africa, she developed methods for people to change their thinking and thus change their brains. Her techniques have helped patients with things like ADD and ADHD, autism, traumatic brain injury (TBI), dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), emotional traumas and mental health issues.
Plus the people with none of the above…but people who nevertheless, had unhealthy toxic thoughts growing in their brains that needed to be rooted out and replaced with healthy thoughts.
Which is every single one of us.
So, after having purchased a one-year subscription to Dr. Leaf’s online 21-Day Brain Detox, I began working on eliminating toxic thoughts, one every 21 days.
And now they’re all gone!
I’m joking, of course. No, I’m afraid a lifetime’s worth of toxic thoughts would take the rest of my life to eliminate, and that’s provided I never have another toxic thought. Like that’s going to happen!
But it’s okay, because the goal isn’t to eliminate every toxic thought we’ve ever had in our lives! The goal is to eliminate the ones that are making us (or those around us) miserable, or otherwise causing problems in our lives, as we come to recognize each one and realize it has got to go.
…and Faulty Wiring
For instance, I used to think my brain was such a hot mess because I was stupid. My brain was a hot mess, but the only thing stupidity had to do with it was that the messy, toxic wiring led to stupid thoughts and decisions. I realized that God had originally created a healthy brain, but that I (for the most part), had damaged the wiring, like a court jester on amphetamines who’s been given access to a computer’s motherboard.
Dr. Leaf often says, “If you wired it in, you can wire it out,” and based on the science she presented, it made perfect sense. So I began to “wire it out.” I began the program a few years ago in March, and sometime in November of that year began using my light therapy as usual, without even thinking about it, and used it the next year, too.
But in November of last year, after deciding to switch from blue light therapy to the safer white lite therapy as I wrote about in Part I, I guess you could say a different sort of light clicked on in my mind. Why am I doing this? I suddenly asked myself. Why would I need to mess around with light therapy when I’m so much better at controlling my brain now? Even if I ditch the lights, I probably won’t get SAD anymore, and if I do, I’ll just do a 21-day round of brain detox and get rid of it!
Which is how, as I said earlier in this post, I more or less decided I wasn’t going to have SAD anymore, and I haven’t. Had I originally started using the program to get rid of SAD, it wouldn’t have been that easy and seemingly instant, as I’d have had to work the program for 21 days. Then I would have spent the next 42 days mentally building on the new, healthy replacement thought (Dr. Leaf says it takes a minimum of 21 days to get into a new habit, and then another 42 days to really cement it to the point where you don’t have to consciously think about it anymore).
But since I’d been working on detoxing my brain for so long already, it was becoming healthier. Because I was used to attacking unhealthy thoughts and replacing them with healthy ones, not getting SAD was much easier. Almost automatic.
So, I’ve come to enjoy eight or nine months of virtually constant rain, right?
Haha. When pigs fly and eagles oink. No, I still think constant rain sucks. Perhaps I could change my mind on that if I really wanted to. But I don’t want to. What I want to do is move. Is that a bad attitude? I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t have to get radical enough to enjoy our nasty weather in order to avoid SAD. I can have my personal likes and dislikes and still maintain an even keel.
Change Your Thinking
I used to dwell on thoughts like, Here comes that cursed rain again…geez…this really sucks. And the days are getting so short! Between a cold so wet that mushrooms are growing on my webbed feet, the greyness, the rain, and the dark, it’s made life hell!
But now my thoughts are more like, Oh well, that’s the Northwest for you. But the winter solstice is only one month away, and THEN the days will start getting longer, woohoo! Then the new year arrives, and it’s all downhill from there! And the older I get, the faster time seems to fly, so before I know it, summer will be just around the corner! Yay!
And while I’m waiting, I look forward to and enjoy the holidays. I love seeing the fire in our woodstove (not to mention being so warm I wear tank tops), sipping hot chocolate or apple-cinnamon tea, and eating yummy home-made soup and other nourishing cold-weather foods. Once in a great while I might even treat myself to a hot toddy or warm brandy, something I wouldn’t dream of doing in the summer. And this coming January, I have garden planning to look forward to!
If you have SAD and use light therapy, no judgment here! If it works well for you and you really like it, then who’s to say your wrong? Although based on the studies regarding eye health, I would recommend white-light therapy over the blue.
On the other hand, not everyone is wild about light therapy. Depending on which light you purchase, it can be expensive, and then you have to sit there under it for at least 20 minutes every morning. So, if you’re part of this group or are currently not doing anything for your SAD, why not try detoxing your brain? The beauty of this is, not only is it excellent therapy for SAD, but it’s excellent therapy for pretty much anything.